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Monday, February 15, 1999 Published at 16:49 GMT


Warning over psychopath detention orders

The Michael Stone case increased pressure for change

Changes to the treatment of people with severe personality disorders could pose a serious threat to civil liberties, mental health charities have warned.

Jack Straw: "The key aim must be to protect the public"
Home Secretary Jack Straw's statement in the Commons that the government is considering new indefinite detention orders for the psychopaths has been welcomed by mental health and probation services.

But there are fears that the plans will not offer enough safeguards to protect patients and that the proposals will not be backed by enough cash.

Doctors are calling for a wide-ranging debate on what constitutes personality disorder.

The probation service estimates around 4,000 people suffer from a severe personality disorder, but health campaigners say it can be difficult to distinguish severe cases from moderate and mild cases.

Doctors believe up to 13% of the population suffers from some form of personality disorder.

Mr Straw plans to set up detention centres which act as a halfway house between prison and hospital for psychopaths.

The aim is to protect the public and comes after outrage over cases where psychopaths, such as murderer Michael Stone, have been allowed free because they were deemed untreatable by psychiatrists.

Detailed proposals will be put out for consultation in the spring and legislation will not be introduced until later this year.

Psychiatrists are undecided about whether psychopaths can be treated under existing mental health legislation.

The British Medical Association (BMA) says there is currently no effective treatment for the disorder.

[ image: Ashworth Hospital: houses many offenders with personality disorders]
Ashworth Hospital: houses many offenders with personality disorders
It says mental health services should only be involved with patients who suffer a treatable condition. Meanwhile, NHS managers are worried about resourcing the new strategy.

Civil liberties

Many groups, including Liberty, are worried about the civil liberties implications of the proposals.

Mental health charities want the government to ensure that preventive detention is only used on people who are clearly a risk to others, is backed by rigorous legal safeguards and that the issue of treatment for people with personality disorder is sorted out.

Mind and the National Schizophrenia Fellowship (NSF) are concerned that some mentally ill people with personality disorder will be left without treatment or locked up.

Both charities have been flooded with calls from worried people with personality disorders. Mind says many fear they could be detained.

The NSF says 20% of people ringing its helpline have been diagnosed with a personality disorder.

Chief executive Cliff Prior said: "Left untreated, or treated badly, severe mental illness can look very like personality disorder to professionals."

The NSF is also calling for the detention centres to pioneer new methods of treatment.

Marjorie Wallace, Chief Executive of mental health charity SANE, talks to BBC News
Majorie Wallace of charity SANE says that, with adequate safeguards, the new system could protect the public and people deemed psychopaths and ensure that mentally ill people who are treatable are not tarnished with a violent label.

Ticking time-bombs

Probation officers also welcomed the plans.

The Association of Chief Officers of Probation said psychopaths were "ticking time-bombs" in the community.

The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro) also welcomed the plans, but warned that only the most serious cases should be targeted.

Nacro and the Royal College of Psychiatrists are also pleased with Mr Straw's announcement that it will increase early intervention in suspected personality disorder cases.

But some accused the government of a "knee-jerk reaction" to public outcry about cases such as Michael Stone.

Dr Phillip Fennell of the Cardiff Law School says current mental health legislation, which is under review, allows for the detention of psychopaths who are deemed a danger to the public.

It is just that psychiatrists are defining the law too narrowly.

"Before we look at a third way [for psychopaths], we should look at the first and second way," he said.

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